For a few weeks now, I have been living with one particular ripple of the Littleton tragedy. Several days after the terrible events, I spoke to a group of some-fifty Orthodox Day School students who were visiting Washington, DC. These were high school students from a number of mainstream, modern Orthodox schools including Flatbush Yeshiva, Beth Tefiloh (Baltimore), Ida Crown (Chicago) and Kushner (New Jersey).
I asked the group: “How many of you believe that what happened in Littleton could happen in your school?” When half, that’s right – half, of the students raised their hands, I was shocked. What does this mean? I have been wondering for weeks now.
Does it mean that our day school kids are sufficiently sophisticated to realize that as insular as their schools and communities might seem that they are not insulated from the society around them? That despite the fact that their friends are all Orthodox, they only eat at the kosher pizza shop and their families attend the same synagogues that they too are buffeted by the maelstrom of America’s deteriorating pop culture?
Perhaps they realize that they and their peers watch the same TV programs, see the same movies and play the same video games whether they attend a day school or Columbine. Some of their peers take their religion seriously, as did those devout Christian students at Columbine, and would never think of committing a crime, while others in their school might go through the motions but remain fundamentally alienated from the community of faith within which they live.
The students who raised their hands perhaps perceive that our schools have not succeeded in reaching all of the young people within their walls and now fear that the corrupt aspects of secular society can reach the student sitting next to them in math class as well.
There could be a proverbial silver lining to this tale. Inasmuch as we might fear that we have created Orthodox schools, synagogues and communities that divide us and our children too much from the broader society within which welive – that we have chosen to make ourselves ‘strangers in a strange land’ – my day school audience seemed to intuitively recognize that they are part of American society and its nature affects them.
Perhaps this will make them and us work to improve American society and the influences that might shape American youth, Jewish or otherwise. Perhaps, closer to home, they will reach out to their schoolmates who haven’t been part of the “in” crowd.
Nevertheless, there seems to be more about the response of these day school students that should raise concerns in our community than inspire optimism. Does their response not suggest that we have a long way to go in our schools, homes and synagogues to bolster their confidence that they are part of community all of whose members are steeped to basic ethical sensibilities that make certain acts unthinkable? Does their response not force us to face the question of whether we have succeeded in ensuring that our schools, homes, synagogues and youth groups are working in concert to form moral personalities in our midst?
We all must work together to understand why all those students raised their hands.